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Pump up your passion for the Pen tool

Added on Monday 27th of August 2007 02:38 am EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS/CS2

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


Many Photoshop users have a love-hate relationship with the Pen tool—they love what the Pen can do, but hate using it so they dump it altogether in favor of other workarounds. Because mastering the Pen tool is one of the most important design skills you can acquire, we’ll get you acclimated to the Pen tool so you can banish those fears once and for all.


To polish up your Pen tool skills, we’ll:

     Explain what the big deal about the Pen tool is anyway, and show how you can benefit from mastering it.

     Introduce you to the Pen tool and its supporting tools, to minimize the intimidation factor.

     Give you the skinny on how to create and use paths so you can control the Pen tool, rather than let it control you.



Are you really clumsy when drawing with the Pen tool; unsure of the right place to click, how far to drag, or which direction to move your mouse in? You’re not alone. Mastering the Pen tool can be tricky and many folks struggle with Bézier curve concepts. But if you exhibit a little bit of practice, a heavy dose of perseverance, and utilize some of our tips, you’ll be a Pen tool pro before you know it.


Why such a fuss?

You may be thinking, “I use Photoshop to retouch photos, so why do I possibly need to learn the Pen tool?” There are many benefits to becoming a precision Pen tool user, such as:

        You can create the most precise clipping paths and selections with the Pen tool.

        You can seamlessly integrate your Pen tool skills with other Adobe applications such as Illustrator and InDesign.

        You can use Photoshop paths as the foundation for artwork and masking techniques.

        You can easily export paths from Photoshop to Illustrator for further editing. 

        You’ll become more confident and proficient in Photoshop with each new skill you acquire.


Get to know the Pen

If you’re primarily a pixel pusher and haven’t spent much time in a drawing program such as Adobe Illustrator, it’s no wonder the Pen tool makes you batty—it’s a completely different concept.

When you click on the Pen tool in the Toolbox you’re presented with a fly-out menu containing different Pen and Point tools, as shown in Figure A. Each tool has a specific function, which we’ll explain.



        The Pen tool Pen. Use the Pen tool to draw straight or curved lines and closed shapes, either independently or to isolate an object in a photo, as shown in Figure B. While this tool can be tricky to master, its tight integration with other Adobe applications makes the learning curve well worth it. 



        The Freeform Pen tool freeform. Use the Freeform Pen tool to draw as if you were using pencil on paper, as shown in Figure C. It’s not as precise as the Pen tool but it’s a good way to get a base path—knowing you’ll need to refine it later.



        Add Anchor Point tool Add_anchor. Use the Add Anchor Point tool to add new anchor points to a selected path.

        Delete Anchor Point tool delete_anchor. Use the Delete Anchor Point tool to delete existing points from a selected path.

        The Convert Point tool convert. Use the Convert Point tool to create control handles for an anchor point, and adjust them as well.


While they don’t occupy the same space in the Toolbox, the selection tools are an integral part of path editing in Photoshop, thus worthy of explanation.


        The Direct Selection tool direct_selection. The Direct Selection tool allows you to select and move paths, individual anchor points, and point control handles.


        The Path Selection tool Path_selection. The Path Selection tool accompanies the Direct Selection tool in the Toolbox. This tool allows you to click on an entire path to select it.




Learn the lingo


As you become better acclimated to the Pen tool, it helps to get up to speed on the terminology associated with paths. To lead your efforts, here is some of lingo you’ll need to know:

        Anchor point. All points in a path are considered anchor points—more commonly simply referred to as points—because they anchor the path into place.

        Bézier paths. All paths in Photoshop are referred to as Bézier paths. This is really just technical mumbo-jumbo that refers to how paths rely on the same mathematical curve definitions that define PostScript printer language.

        Bézier control handles. These are extensions of each point. You can adjust a path by moving each control handle.




The Paths palette at a glance

Whenever you begin to create a new path, it appears in the Paths palette with the name Work Path. This is a path in progress, not a saved path. To save a path, double-click on the Work Path, name it, and click OK.

The Paths palette offers you more options than simply storing your paths. With the options in the Paths palette pop-up menu—or from the buttons at the base of the palette—you can stroke a path, fill it, or turn it into a selection.

Once you’ve created and saved a path, you can also designate it as a clipping path. Simply choose Clipping Path from the Paths palette pop-up menu to display the Clipping Path dialog box, choose the desired path from the Path pop-up menu and click OK. Note: You cannot designate a Work Path as a clipping path.



You’ve got options

The tool options bar allows you to make choices related to the tool you have selected. Let’s look at the options associated with the two primary pen tools.


Pen tool options

When you select the Pen tool, there are a few options you’ll need to set. The most important is whether you want to draw a shape or a path.

        Shape Layers button shape_layers. Click on the Shape Layers button if you want to draw a shape layer. This will put your drawing object on its own layer.

        Paths button paths. Click on the Paths button to draw a path without any particular layer association.